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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Jan De Smet

If this doesn’t make you happy, I don’t know what can.

Interview Sam De Brabander
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

Welcome to Jan De Smet’s cabinet of curiosities. “Here, you’ll find all my musical follies!”, he laughs. To open the door to his cabinet is to step into a well-organised world of mad music and idiosyncratic sleeves. What once served as a bedroom for his son is now the setting of an extensive collection of vinyl, brimming with Dutch tear-jerkers, erotic covers, colourful records found in thrift stores and quirky whims by figures like Spike Jones. Much like in De Smet’s band De Nieuwe Snaar, humour and music meet somewhere in the middle. “Look at this. The High Fidelity series are a series of covers for fictitious records, which always contain the same note: ‘I bought this album for you as a gift. Sorry, I couldn’t afford the record’. There’s never a record in any of them!”

Comedy abounds in the cabinet. Inspired by intelligent comedy films and word play by Drs. P., among others, De Smet spent his younger years scavenging for music that hit the exact same spot. “On a blue Monday, I heard The Hawaiian War Chant, an intro for a series centred around Jerry Lewis. I’d never heard anything that bonkers. It appeared to have been made by Spike Jones.” De Smet started tinkering with popular music from the 40s and 50s, blending classical themes in a different context and using jockary tennis balls and cow bells — proof that his fad was running deep and did not suffice to serve as an anchor point for his collection. Jones’ performances where “formative” for the enthusiastic musician that he is and formed a blueprint for the entire body of work De Smet wrote for De Nieuwe Snaar.

Not only is De Smet a born musician, he also has the gift to tell a colourful tale about music made by others. He talks just as ardently about an icon like Bob Dylan as he does about Freddy Morgan’s skill-laden banjo music. He delves to find the latter’s record, Mr. Banjo, and can’t help to start smiling when glimpsing the rascal gracing the cover. “If this doesn’t make you happy, I don’t know what can.” De Smet has the ability to weave a beautiful story using just the front and back of a moonstruck record. In one of his shows, his own collection takes the front stage and De Smet musically accompanies the sleeves. “I don’t want to keep my collection to myself. Consider it as something that belongs to us all and that I want to show to everybody. For Closing Time, a show I hosted on national radio, I found most of my inspiration in my own collection. Ever since, my radio friends call me whenever they can’t find some track online.” De Smet’s collection is not looking at oblivion and thick layers of dust in the near future, much to the contrary. “I often select a few records to create a small series: records that are separated by time and space, yet breathe the same atmosphere. I like to reorganize like that.”

Collectors strive for completion. I don’t.

“It was a hell of a job to haul all these records upstairs. And it was loads more fun to classify them”, De Smet recalls. Thanks to artist and genre tags, he finds everything rather quickly. All evidence to the contrary, De Smet wouldn’t call himself a collector. “Collectors strive for completion. I don’t. These pieces have come to me. I preserve them and work with them. That’s something else.” There is a lightness in his voice when he speaks of all the work these 6000 records embody. As if his years of visiting thrift shops and record stores here and abroad are a sort of extension of his existence. The fact that he won’t pay a fortune for a record probably helps him put things in perspective. Nonetheless, De Smet understands how valuable his collection is. From the erotic sleeves featuring cats to the illustrated covers signed Ever Meulen and Karl Meersman: you’ll find treasures here that are little works of art in themselves and only multiply their power when part of a series. Often, the music comes second. Whenever De Smet receives an offer to adopt someone else’s old record collection, he usually only picks out the one funny looking sleeve. “It doesn’t matter in what condition the actual record is, it’s the sleeve I’m interested in. The rest of the stash goes back to the thrift store. I’ve flicked through many cases there, but I’ve also dropped off a lot of records.” And so the world turns.

It might seem like De Smet does everything the old school way, but to him, too, vinyl is but a click a way on the internet. He smells a bargain a mile away and has ordered many records in the States no one had ever heard of. De Smet has become such a master of his niche of rarities that record sellers seldom surprise him. “When I go into a record store, I usually ask to see what they have in the back and don’t know how to classify. Meanwhile, most know me and even in Amsterdam, they know what I’m after: the small things that move in the margin. That’s what I look for in every art form.” The sellers’ blind spots surely help De Smet expand his collection, but he’s always trusted his own gut when out hunting. “I used to go into record stores with a list. ‘Here’s a man with a tough list!’ the Jewish-American salesman over at Record Collector once said to me. They were names I found in compilations of international radio figures or from Incredible Strange Music, a double bible of curious record sleeves with collections of The Cramps and The Dead Kennedy’s, among others.”

De Smet doesn’t see his collecting habits ending any time soon. “As a musician, I’m constantly receiving new impulses that inspire me to try things. Plus it’s so much fun to talk about this with likeminded souls and exchange finds with people like Mauro Pawlowski or Jan Delvaux. Yet I will choose the hunt for the record over actually finding one.” Clearly, there will always be a place for vinyl in De Smet’s life. If not for the sheer beauty of a sensual cover like Around Midnight by blues singer Julie London, then to use the sleeves in his everyday life. Each Christmas, De Smet crafts his traditional and quirky Christmas cards, usually with a twist. In the kitchen, a record with an elderly couple is on display, celebrating the fact that he has become a grandfather. There’s no doubt he’ll one day tell his grandson about his cabinet of curiosities.